The closure of the Warsaw Ghetto

Professor Paweł Śpiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute, writes about the 80th anniversary of the closure of the Warsaw Ghetto. With this article, we announce our commemorations of the 1940–1943 events, moving from death to life.

Wide  en budowa muru getta 1940
Construction of the Warsaw ghetto wall, intersection of Marszałkowska and Świętokrzyska streets, 1940.  /  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leopold Page Photographic Collection

The researchers from the Oneg Shabbat group had been writing in mid-1942 that German policy towards the Jews was divided into two or three stages. The first period, beginning in winter 1940, included resettlements, limiting the basic rights of Jewish citizens, constant physical and psychological pressure, various orders and prohibitions aimed at segregation. The most visible element were bands with the Star of David sign worn on the right arm or, like in Łódź, yellow patches with an inscription saying ‘Jude’. They were known as ‘marks of shame’. The Germans forbid the Jews from moving between cities, visiting restaurants or cafes. The Jews had to travel with separate tram carriages and lost access to their bank accounts. Numerous cases of seizure of Jewish belongings had also been noted. In order to raise terror in the Jewish community, Polish hooligans were allowed to attack Jews on the streets and to rob their shops.

Authors of the report entitled The Gehenna of Polish Jews under Hitlerite occupation mentioned three kinds of typical, widely applied administrational restrictions from the beginning of the occupation: economic (‘policy of economic extermination’), population-related orders (policy of permanent resettlement from one area to another), regulations on nutrition (condemning Jews to starvation; famine in the Jewish quarter spread even before the closure) and orders aimed at cultural and moral degradation (‘policy of regression and spiritual barbarization of the Jews’), which included closing down of synagogues and prayer houses, robbery and destruction of libraries, Judaica and cemeteries. Another painful blow included closing down of Jewish religious schools. All these acts of persecution were accompanied by a policy of extreme exploitation: Jews were sent to labor camps or labor brigades, where conditions resembled the most brutal concentration camps. The second stage, which in most cities had spread over two years, included isolating Jews in ghettos, separated with walls, barbed wire, fences. This stage lasted in the General Government until early 1942 (a small number of ghettos were liquidated later), when the mass murder of Jews began in central Poland. The actual border, the red line, runs here.

Certain ghettos had been established already in late autumn 1939. Larger ones, like those in Łódź or Pabianice, were created in early 1940. The Warsaw Ghetto was closed on a Shabbat night, 15/16 November 1940. Initially, information about the creation of a ghetto circulated as a rumor, but in early autumn it became obvious it was true. Deportations began. Over 100,000 Christians had to leave the area included into the future Jewish quarter; even more people from the rest of the city had to move into the ghetto. The borders were not marked yet and kept changing until the last days before the closure, as well as throughout the ghetto’s existence. It wasn’t clear which streets would be found on the ’Aryan side’.

We know photographs from that period. We see horse carriages, strollers, men carrying suitcases on their backs. Crowds of people deprived of their homes and belongings, waiting to enter the closed district. A concentration camp in the middle of the city, named ghetto – in the Venetian way, was being developed. In Oneg Shabbat’s report from June 1942 we read: ‘It is commonly believed that the Germans have revived the institution of medieval ghettos. This is not true. All medieval ghettos were open Jewish districts, closed only for the night. Aside from that, the Jews had freedom of movement and other liberties. From all theoretical publications as well as from the practices of the National Socialists, we can clearly see that (…) they intend to cut the ghettos from the outside world, and to turn them into concentration camps in the full meaning of the term, with an additional disadvantage, namely that people in the ghettos have to provide food for themselves. The entire image is completed by a ban on leaving the ghetto under threat of death penalty’[1].

In the ghetto, half a million people had found themselves on a small area (a little bit more than 300 hectares, or 1.3 sq mi). Tens of thousands were killed due to famine, disease, German terror. Only about 350,000 survived until July 1942. Threat of death, helplessness, poverty and violence were a part of everyday life. The worst sentence was sending to a labor camp. The stations of suffering which the Jews of Warsaw went through were numerous: the band – a sign of exclusion, the wall separating the Jews from their neighbors, the horizon and contact with nature; famine, fear, crowding and lack of intimacy in daily life and in death, uncertain fate, indifference among people, fear for one’s own and loved ones’ life. All of this was complemented by common corruption, mercilessness of the Jewish Order Service, daily brutal struggle for survival, moral and spiritual destruction of people.

Within one and a half year, the Jewish community went through the worst traumas. Every day, they had to face the fundamental challenges and extreme situations. Authors of diaries lacked words to express the limitless suffering. They hated the Germans, but it also happened that they became difficult for themselves, because the living conditions were so horrifying and so destructive for the community. Janusz Korczak wrote in his diary: if we survive and meet again after the war, we won’t even feel like looking at each other.

The life in the ghetto kept going next to the normal bustle of the city. The Jews could observe it from the bridge of sighs over Chłodna street or from the top floors of the ghetto houses. These two worlds lived separately, even though they had a lot in common. An inevitable wall of indifference, hostility and jealousy kept growing. Despite the occupation, the condition of Poles was, at least for the time being, much more favorable. Two nations living together for centuries had been separated not only in material, but also in mental terms. The terror on the Polish side was much less strict and the living conditions were better. The Jews, as a community, had the right to feel abandoned. Polish government in exile, as well as the leaders of the underground Polish state, didn’t express care for their fate as Polish citizens.

In diaries written by the people of Warsaw, we don’t find many mentions of the ghetto and of the fate of the Jews. Things which were happening behind the wall usually remained beyond the interest and imagination of former neighbors. We don’t find much compassion and understanding, let alone readiness for help, in documents from that period. Reluctance, indifference, sometimes simple hostility prevailed. Anti-Semitic tendencies from before the war became strengthened by German propaganda and underground nationalist press. The only stable bridge over material and mental divide between the nations was made of smuggling, trade and corruption. Ludwik Hering, an outstanding, today mostly forgotten writer, described it in his short story, Traces: ‘The ghetto lived off Warsaw, and Warsaw lived off the ghetto. Everyone knew about it and had their profits, apart from those pure ones, who made profits, but didn’t want to know. Warsaw kept living off the ghetto long after its death, until its own very end. The ghetto was the heart of Warsaw. In constant pulsation, it was giving and taking: through checkpoints, passes, holes, like through aortas, arteries and hundredfold veins, up to the tiniest capillaries animating the most illicit corners of the city. The smuggle with cars, carriages, trolleys and caravans ran through corrupted checkpoints at the main exits, through secret passes, through holes in the wall, fixed and recreated several times a night; the smuggle ran through gutters under the wall, and over the wall itself, fraught with glass… it could be crossed for money, for the risk of life…. Everything which could make life possible was passed on. Because the wall encapsulated everything which was death: even cyanide had to be brought from the other side’. Hering’s story reaches further, showing evil on the Polish side. It ends with scenes of defectors from the ghetto, killed by the Poles.

The ghetto walls were closed eighty years ago. Few people who remember it are still alive. But records and documents from the time, telling us how the ghetto functioned, can be counted in hundreds. Several dozen volumes of documents of the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto were published, as well as many diaries. But there’s still a lot of work left to be done. Between 1943 and 1944, the remaining ruins of the ‘greater ghetto’ were completely destroyed and nothing was left but kilometers of rubble. After the war, the street grid was changed, so it’s impossible now to find old addresses. Only few buildings of the smaller ghetto were left, and keep collapsing quickly. Soon, the traces of the ghetto will be much less visible. Several important landmarks remain: the building of the Main Judaistic Library (today, the Jewish Historical Institute) at Tłomackie street, the former children’s hospital at Sliska street, a few houses at Stawki (such as the Psychology Department of the University of Warsaw), where the Umschlagplatz was located. Monuments and signs of memory appear: the symbolic border of the ghetto running through the streets and pavements of the city seems to be especially important.

The historical continuity of Warsaw was broken forever. One third of the people who lived in the city had disappeared from the streets, and died. The language and customs had died with them. Writers, actors, musicians, carters, shoemakers disappeared. These people have no graves. Most people today don’t remember about them. The Polish intelligentsia of Jewish origin, a group so important for Polish culture, had disappeared.

Yet the wound after the ghetto stays within us, in the questions we have to ask ourselves, questions about people who were forced to stay there, suffer torture, and eventually were sent to the giant factory of corpses, to Treblinka. The Polish Jewish community is gone. Nothing, or nearly nothing, can grow on this soil; this is a Jewish waste land. A living, numerous Jewish community won’t be restored. There are no signs of this happening. This place, this memory, this history belongs to everybody for whom it’s painful, and to whom it shouts out. To the Poles and to the Jews above all.


Read also:

Events at the Jewish Historical Institute in 2020

„Bridge of Sighs” of the biggest Ghetto in Europe

The closing of the Łódź Ghetto



[1] Archiwum Ringelbluma. Podziemne Archiwum Getta Warszawy, vol. 11, Ludzie i prace „Oneg Szabat”, ed. Aleksandra Bańkowska, Tadeusz Epsztein, transl. Sara Arm and others., Wydawnictwo ŻIH/Wydawnictwo UW, Warsaw 2013, p. 314; report Gehenna Żydów polskich pod okupacją hitlerowską (The Gehenna of Polish Jews under Hitlerite occupation), written by Emanuel Ringelblum and Eliasz Gutkowski.






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